Twenty-five days after he was arrested on the charge that he could crack a joke that someone would find objectionable, comedian Munawar Faruqui and five of his friends and colleagues await a decision from the Madhya Pradesh High Court on a bail application.

The entire case against the six may seem like some absurd theatrical performance with actors playing to a badly written script. The accused face charges under the Indian Penal Code (including Sec 295-A) that attract imprisonment of up to three years and the continued denial of bail on the grounds that their release may lead to law and order issues, is yet another reminder that lofty notions of personal liberty may prove to be illusory in certain situations in our country.

Faruqui’s arrest, and that of his five colleagues and friends (one of whom was picked up for merely visiting him in jail the next day), made it to the headlines of the mainstream media. But the local media in Indore, where the drama is being played out, couldn’t be bothered.

So there is little or no local reaction to all the reports of the objections raised by the complainant, the son of a local BJP leader (the only video evidence of the show being the attempt by Faruqui to reassure and pacify the complainant). The important testimonies on social media by some members of the audience for Faruqui’s show asserting that Faruqui did not crack any jokes remotely referring to Hindu deities were also ignored.

Even the subsequent statement by the complainant that he overheard the allegedly offending joke during a rehearsal is unchallenged. Faruqui’s friends and fellow comedians, in an excellent profile of the comedian beyond the headlines, say that this is implausible, as comedians use the element of surprise to elicit laughs.

In the absence of concrete and verifiable facts, the idea that a joke allegedly against Hindu deities that may be cracked by a comedian in a cafe would seriously disrupt public order and the disturbances in Ujjain and Indore in the last week of December 2020 due to fund collection drives for the Ram temple in Ayodhya by youth associated with the ruling BJP in Madhya Pradesh comes in handy to bolster this.

Nevertheless, Faruqui’s lawyer Anshuman Shrivastava, believes that the due processes of justice cannot be breached so easily. For the third time in the last twenty-five days, he moves court for bail today. He told FSC that he is hopeful bail will be granted.

But whether the saga will end here depends on the action of Uttar Pradesh police, who are waiting in the wings with their production warrant for a case lodged against Faruqui in April 2020 for a video that was taken down subsequently. Even this case needs to be rigorously examined before police rush into action. As this excellent post by Siddharth Shivakumar on the use and misuse of Sec 295-A pointed out, the Supreme Court, in the Ramji Lal Modi v. State of U.P. judgement in 1957, had said:

“… s. 295A does not penalise any and every act of insult to or attempt to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of a class of citizens but it penalises only those acts of insults to or those varieties of attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of a class of citizens, which are perpetrated with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of that class. Insults to religion offered unwittingly or carelessly or without any deliberate or malicious intention to outrage the religious feelings of that class do not come within the section. It only punishes the aggravated form of insult to religion when it is perpetrated with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of that class.” [Emphasis supplied] .

As Shivakumar said, “This incident is a clear misuse of Section 295-A and such wanton misuse will only encourage the law enforcement to continue to over-react to the sensitivities of the insensitive majority.”

A timeline :

January 1, 2021: Munawar Faruqui, a stand up comedian, is arrested on charges of allegedly insulting Hindu gods and for violating Covid-19 protocol at a New Year event in a cafe in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Acting on a complaint by Aklavya Laxman Singh Gaur of the Hindu Rakshak outfit and son of MLA and former Indore mayor Malini Laxman Singh Gaur, police also arrested Edwin Anthony, Prakhar Vyas, Priyam Vyas and Nalin Yadav. They are remanded to judicial custody.

They are charged under Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections 295-A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs), 269 (unlawful or negligent act likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life).

January 2, 2021: Faruqui’s friend Sadakat Khan comes to visit him in the police station. Police arrest him too, on charges that he was a co-organiser of the event. His family dispute this and said he had nothing to do with organising the event.

January 3, 2021: A member of the audience at the show takes to Instagram to provide a detailed account of what transpired at the show. She said Faruqui had NOT cracked a single joke insulting Hindu deities and described the manner in which Gaur tried to disrupt the show:

January 4, 2021: Police say there is no video evidence that Faruqui had made any jokes or insulted any Hindu deities. Kamlesh Sharma, the town inspector of Tukaganj Police Station, said that the video submitted by the complainant showed another comedian making jokes about the deity Ganesh. “There’s no evidence against him [Faruqui] for insulting Hindu deities or Union Minister Amit Shah,” Sharma said.

January 5, 2021: A sessions court in Indore rejects the bail plea by Munawar Faruqui and his show organiser Nalin Yadav on grounds that their release will disrupt law and order. Arguing the bail plea, Munawar’s counsel Anshuman Shrivastav said that the case against the two was made on false grounds and there is no evidence on record to show that an attempt was made to hurt religious sentiments by insulting Gods and Goddesses.

January 13, 2021: Sadakat Khan’s bail plea is rejected by a sessions court, on grounds that his release will disrupt law and order.

January 15, 2021: The Madhya Pradesh High Court adjourns Faruqui’s bail plea to January 22. The police failed to produce the case diary. Lawyer Anshuman Shrivastava appeals to the court to reschedule the hearing for later in the day. “Since the Tukoganj Police Station (where the case is registered) is across the road from the High Court premises, we argued that the police should be asked to get the diary… however it (the hearing) was adjourned,” he said. But the curt rejects his plea and the case is posted for January 25.

Meanwhie, the chief judicial magistrate extends Faruqui’s judicial custody till January 27.

Jan 16, 2021: Prayagraj police submit a production warrant for Munawar Faruqui before the chief judicial magistrate (CJM) court in Indore and Indore Central Jail in connection with a case registered against him at George Town police station in Uttar Pradesh on April 19, 2020.

The case followed a complaint filed by advocate Ashutosh Mishra on a YouTube video which was uploaded by Faruqui, which made allegedly derogatory remarks against Hindu deities, allegedly mocked the deaths of Hindus in Godhra in Gujarat in 2002 and referred to the role of the RSS in the violence and another video which allegedly made derogatory remarks against Union Home Minister Amit Shah. The case was registered under IPC sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on ground of religion), 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion) and section 65 and 66 IT Act, 2008.

January 22, 2021: Lawyers for Munawar Faruqui move court for an early hearing of the bail application. The case will now come up on January 25, 2021.

January 25 , 2021: Madhya Pradesh High Court(Indore Bench) on Monday reserved orders on the bail application of comedian Munawar Faruqui. According to reports, Justice Rohit Arya was first disinclined to hear the case and even asked Faruiqui’s lawyer, Vivek Tankha, if he wanted to withdraw the bail application. Tankha said the comedian had committed no offence and that bail should be granted. But the judge said, ““Such people must not be spared. I will reserve the order on merits.”

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